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Battle of the off-net stars

Three is turning out not to be a crowd after all-at least not in the off-net sitcom market for 2002.

Last week, Warner Bros. Domestic Television sold Will & Grace to KBHK-TV San Francisco. The show became the first of the three big-ticket sitcoms for 2002-Dharma & Greg and That'70s Show are the others-to crack the No. 5 market. Just days before that, Twentieth Television closed top-market deals for the debut of the off-net run of Dharma, and That'70s Show has also found some premium shelf space.

After hitting the road in the past several weeks, Warner Bros., which distributes NBC's Will & Grace in domestic syndication, clinched a station group deal with Tribune Broadcasting Stations. Soon after, Carsey-Werner had second-year FOX comedy That'70s Show cleared in 48% of the country going market-by-market.

"In no time in recent memory have you had three sitcoms of this caliber all out there fighting for a piece of the pie," says Twentieth Executive Vice President of Sales Paul Franklin. "To have them all out at once like this, it's been very competitive. However, they've all managed to sell."

Some say that the competition has depressed license fees slightly. The inability of fall 1999 off-net sitcoms Drew Carey and 3rd Rock to reach Seinfeld-like heights this year has offered the market a reality check, according to station rep Dick Kurlander, VP and director of programming, Petry Television.

"It's the law of supply and demand in effect," Kurlander explains. "It's made prices fall to a more realistic level with more modest expectations."

Sources say the license fee for That'70s Show is slightly north of $2 million per episode and Will & Grace and Dharma & Greg are in the same neighborhood.

The three shows are being sold differently.

Will & Grace went to all 22 of Tribune's stations on a cash-plus-barter basis and will run concurrently on Tribune-owned superstation WGN until the fourth season of syndication, at which time the show's cable window moves to Lifetime. That is much like the deal Warner Bros. made for Suddenly Susan, which debuts in syndication this fall.

That'70s Show has been sold to UPN affiliates WWOR-TV New York, KCOP-TV Los Angeles and WPWR-TV Chicago, as well as stations in Boston; Philadelphia; Washington; Detroit; San Diego; Denver; Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Houston; Seattle; Miami; Providence, R.I.; Tampa, Fla.; Minneapolis, Sacramento, Calif.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Orlando, Fla. The show is being sold on a cash-plus-barter basis and is broadcast-exclusive in the initial three-season term.

Tribune Broadcasting, which has had success airing a number of sitcoms, including Warner Bros.'Friends, got a piece of Dharma & Greg in addition to Will & Grace. Dharma & Greg went to Tribune stations WPIX(TV) New York and WGN-TV Chicago, as well as FOX O & O KTTV(TV) Los Angeles. The show is broadcast-exclusive through the third season in syndication.

Neither Carsey-Werner nor Twentieth has made deals for its shows' cable windows.

Syndicators and station sources alike agree that the broadcast exclusivity element of the deals remains important to stations.

Tribune will have a chance to find out first-hand how much impact a concurrent cable window will have when Warner Bros.'Friends, which airs on Tribune stations, begins its run in fall 2001 on TBS, which is owned by Warner Bros. parent, Time Warner.

Marc Schacher, vice president of programming and development for Tribune Broadcasting, says that off-net sitcoms continue to be a staple for the group.

"As long as I can remember," he says, "it's a cycle of replenishing [off-net sitcoms] with new ones you think and hope are the best to choose from."